Chilling Out in Paris

Funny how a country with such great markets can be so prehistoric in its marketing mentality. That the French have had to borrow the term from l’américaine is no accident. Americans breathe marketing, whereas the French have to learn it.

A pair of seemingly petty incidents this week got my culturally inculcated feathers all ruffled. Here they go.

Incident one. I walked into my neighborhood wine shop for a quick fix – a bottle of something red and corsé to wash down the ugly rooster (coq au vin) that I’d left simmering in the cocotte. The middle-aged husband and wife team scurried around the cluttered shop hunting down favorite côtes, proposing various millésimes, and mildly contradicting each other like real professionals. Collectively, we settled on a little-known but supposedly remarkable, although not too cheap, Côte de Roussillon for the “foul” occasion. I consented to two bottles and added a Côte du Rhône as a backup. When you add a dash of service to a product of quality, shoppers are happy, and the First American Law of Marketing is that happiness is a condition of spending.

In any case, how delightful it felt to have enthusiastic sommeliers at my corner package store. What true added value! (Not TVA.) Moments like these – I reflected as I watched the pride on my wine merchant’s face as she dusted the bordeaux shoulders, lips bunched up in that particularly French way implying approval and certainty – reaffirm why we love so much this life of self-exile. No money-back guarantee but delight. Imagine asking Vinnie at 4th Street Spirits if he could suggest something sympa for potted cock!

As an afterthought I remembered that some beer was in order so I asked for six bottles of Heineken. At least one Rolling Rock expat guzzler was expected for chow. A battery of dusty singles sat warmly on a lower shelf. It was already past 7 and there wouldn’t be time to get these suckers chilled down in time for apéro hour. (We know better than to think ICE in France.)

“Do you have a few bottles au frais?”

Madame scurried away to a back room and returned triumphantly with two chilled ones. But just then a serious glare conquered her mood as she approached the cluttered caisse. “I’m going to have to charge you 50 centimes extra for these.”

And that’s when the experience turned from the quaint to the maddening. Anglo-Saxons, particularly Americans, don’t like being charged for nothing, even if it’s a question of pennies. Americans hate being “nickeled and dimed.” Our PR-imbibing minds shout “Build it in, man!” A premium for chilled beer in a liquor store just doesn’t cut it in Peoria, Princeton or Paris. It’s a matter of principle!

I gave her one of those ironic Jack Nicholson smiles. She didn’t understand and proceeded to explain that it costs to keep the refrigerator plugged in. On another occasion I might have been raring to bag the wine for the sake of the greater principle and march over to the Monoprix, but time was of the essence and principle this time, I rationalized, was merely a cultural nuance. Steer wide, I thought. Lighten up.

I remembered Rule Two in the manual: If you want to win in France, graciously show total willingness to lose. He who can manipulate his subservience rules. Not only is the customer not king, he or she must demonstrate cowardice. Humiliate yourself and a local honor code may kick in. Just as I was getting lost in my own reveries, my dear wine merchant announced that she’d yield the 1F surcharge “this time,” a gesture that the American in me wanted to understand as commercial smarts, but no, she had made the exception because she knew me. It was an act of copinage, the French version of insider trading. She made it crystal clear that no one else during the day would get away without paying the chill fee, that she couldn’t afford not to charge extra. People would be trailing into the shop non-stop, she complained. Isn’t that what a merchant wants? I thought. Paying customers? The first shop in Paris that loudly announces on its storefront window COLD DRINKS (the cold part is FREE) will understand something profoundly American and deserve to make a killing.

The cold beer story spills out into lots of others. Why not advertise that the pickle on your sandwich is FREE? Why not give the dear customer a usable bag for lugging away his or her groceries?

With the wine in hand I headed into the boulangerie. Of course I’d just missed the last baguette and we all know the choices left on those late last-minute bread jaunts. If you’re lucky you can buy broken pieces of bâtard or else a demi-Viennoise. I took a pain complet, but in the wake of the chilled beer episode fell into my own trap and asked for my loaf sliced.

“That’s 2 francs extra.”

Now, I don’t care how long you’ve lived abroad, paying for the slicing of bread is an act of commercial heresy that will never go down easily. Charge what you like for the damn bread – yes we know it’s good – but for Heaven’s sake, don’t charge us to slice it.

This isn’t nitpicking; these aren’t just petty annoyances; they’re commercial signposts for larger avenues of cultural rules. Each of us gathers our own little lists; it’s one way we preserve our cultural identity.


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